“I Didn’t Want to Know That!” Maintaining privacy from incidental revelations: Choose Privacy Week 2019

By John Mack Freeman

Every librarian is a knowledge worker, and the amount of information that each of us works with everyday is a true water cannon. Libraries collect data about their users to open accounts, improve services, reporting to funding agencies, improve collection findability, and so much more. But that information can often pale in comparison to what gets casually revealed during user encounters.

I have worked in public libraries for almost a decade, and in that time, I have had users tell me about the status of their marriage, health concerns, religious epiphanies, political views, financial woes, and so much more. Often, these revelations come about because the person standing there was seeking my assistance in locating information that could assist them. Sometimes, though, people were just looking for a friendly face and someone to listen for a moment. The library offers both of these things, and that can be a true service to the community.

Over a long timeline of interacting with the same people, library workers can start to develop a running knowledge of a large amount of information about the people that come in all the time. Unintentionally or not, profiles start to come together, and library workers can start to look a little bit like Nancy Drew with their ability to combine clues together into a larger whole. A little bit of information seeps out in every encounter when a library worker sees what someone has checked out, placed on hold, submitted as a recommendation for purchase, viewed as a website on the internet, attended as a program, or asked about in a reference interview. Housing status, health, financial wellbeing, personal issues, and so much more that is casually revealed gets added to the growing body of what is known of the user. Even though the library worker never asked to know these things, all of the sudden, they do. And now, this is something that they have to deal with, and this is information has privacy concerns attached to it.

A lot of the discussion of privacy has to do with digital records or official documents to ensure that people’s identities aren’t stolen, their reading histories aren’t revealed, and that their digital tracks are covered. But there are information breadcrumbs left in a completely inaccessible black box that libraries have to remain aware of: the brains of the people who work here. Unfortunately, these details can’t be scrubbed from memory. Thus, the onus of maintaining the user’s privacy lies with every person who inadvertently gains details from incidental revelations from library users.

This devotion to privacy, though, doesn’t just stop apply to users, though. It also applies in the workplace. In a time when more and more people are living their truths, it can be hard to remember that not everything about a person is public knowledge in the workplace. I’m an out gay man and have been for my entire professional life. Because of this, I have had coworkers out numerous other LGBTQ employees to me because they thought I already knew. Whether or not I did, it was not these people’s business to tell me. Instead, they should have respected the privacy of their coworkers, colleagues, and employees. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. The mindset that it doesn’t hurt to tell one person or the belief that telling one person who definitely won’t tell anyone else is pervasive in many institutions.

When it comes to incidental revelations that don’t affect services or safety, every person should choose to maintain other people’s privacy. Because libraries are open to broad communities, all kinds of people will interact with their services. Maintaining the privacy of users helps create a more equitable environment where everyone gets to interact with the services that are being offered on an even playing field. Privacy protects against prejudicial service.

But this protection of privacy shouldn’t just be passive. Protecting privacy, like standing up for any right, is an active stance. Thus, if a person sees or hears someone relating private information that isn’t relevant, that person should intervene. Supervisors should encourage their teams to keep privacy more at the forefront of their thoughts. It isn’t just a little bit of gossip; instead, it’s a betrayal of the trust that individuals put in the library and that workers put in each other when they interact. If these moments aren’t confronted, then it informs everyone that is observing that this is acceptable behavior, and it makes it that much more likely that activities that compromise privacy will happen more often.

There may be formal measures that can be taken to reduce incidental information revelation. For instance, some ILSs allow for the tracking of a user’s gender. However, if the library is not using this information (and most of the ones that I have encountered don’t), then collecting this information is doing little more than to potentially out non-cisgender individuals during a library encounter. In other cases, make sure that any surveys that the library puts out are appropriately anonymized and don’t collect any demographic information that isn’t going to be put to use.

However, oftentimes, the protection for these incidental revelations can’t come through technology or policies. Instead, it’s a training issue, an ethics issue, and a conversation with the people who work in libraries to ensure that every person understands the value of privacy for all the people that the library interacts with every day. Privacy isn’t something that just happens; it’s something that is actively chosen.

Library workers will continue to know a lot about the people that come through the door, and that can be a great thing. It can help build better reader’s advisory recommendations, plan better programs, increase the effectiveness of one-on-one help sessions, and so much more. But outside of those direct interactions, anything revealed should be locked away where no one can access it. Each librarian’s internal file on their users should be locked, and only that particular person should have the key.


John Mack Freeman is a branch manager with the Gwinnett County Public Library and the current chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Round Table. A Georgia his native, his professional interests include outreach to underserved communities, information literacy in public libraries, and privacy in the public sphere.

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